Wilko Johnson on mortality, miracles and music

December 28, 2020. Series 2. Episode 16

Wilko Johnson is one of Britain’s most revered rock stars … the Dr Feelgood guitarist who inspired Paul Weller and Joe Strummer. He’s also a man with a unique perspective on mortality as well as music. After an astonishing career (that included a role in Game of Thrones) Wilko was told in 2013 that he had terminal pancreatic cancer and only months to live. He rejected chemotherapy and set about saying goodbye to his fans around the world in the only way he knew how … with a farewell tour and hit album. Towards the end of his last year a fan – who was also a cancer specialist – urged him to seek a second opinion. Wilko had been misdiagnosed and after an 11hour operation was saved. In this bonus episode, Wilko talks with clarity and power about the 12 months he spent believing his death was imminent. A year he describes as both vivid and profound.


Wilko’s Crisis Cures:

1. Not Drinking: Alcohol can turn depression into despair.

2. Moby Dick: I love to read and what a book!

3. Van Morrison: Almost Independence Day from the album Saint Dominic’s Preview. It finishes with this long droning synthesizer note – you hear that and think everything’s going to be alright.



Wilko’s book: https://amzn.to/3LskQEN

Addenbrooke’s Charitable Trust: https://www.act4addenbrookes.org.uk


Episode Notes:

I’ve talked on this podcast with a number of people who’ve faced the prospect of death either in an accident or through illness. But this is the first conversation with someone who knew – with absolute certainty – that their death was imminent. Wilko Johnson’s incredible story would not, as he says himself, get past the scriptwriting stage of any drama. So unbelievable were the chain of events that led him to losing and then regaining his life. The insights that journey afforded Wilko left me mesmerised. “Everyone imagines how they’ll react with a cancer diagnosis,” he told me. “I was absolutely calm.  I just thought – Oh! This is how it ends .. For me, the question of mortality was answered. I pitied everyone else walking around fearing death.” Wilko is a man who has lived a rocker’s life … full of the superficial ups and downs of what he calls ‘the biz’. But he’s also a man capable of the most breath-taking insight and it was a privilege to listen to his analysis of a truly unique crisis.

Stream/Buy ‘Allies’ by Some Velvet Morning: https://ampl.ink/qp6bm

Some Velvet Morning Website: www.somevelvetmorning.co.uk

Photo credit – Paul Crowther


Host – Andy Coulson

Producer – Louise Difford


Full transcript: 

00:00:00.00 Intro music


00:00:19.06 Andy Coulson:

Hello and welcome to Crisis What Crisis? a new podcast designed to be a useful field guide as we all try to navigate and come to terms with a dramatically changed world. Whether it’s personal, professional or both, crisis is without doubt, the new shared experience. I’m Andy Coulson, a former newspaper editor, Downing Street Director of Communications and one time inmate of HMP Belmarsh. For the last four years I’ve been putting all of my experience, the good and the bad, to use as a strategic advisor to business leaders and I can tell you that the bad has been just as useful as the good. And that got me thinking that there are plenty of great podcasts out there where you can hear stories of success, there are far fewer where you can benefit from the experience of those whose lives have properly unravelled.


00:01:06.21 Andy Coulson:

So, in Crisis What Crisis? I’ll be talking to the embattled, shamed, courageous, ruined, damaged, resilient, unlucky and lucky survivors of crisis. Some names will be familiar, some less so, but all our guests will talk about their crises honestly, often with humour, but always in the hope that what they have to share might be useful to anyone facing down their own demons and challenges. Put simply, these are crisis stories worth sharing. If you agree and enjoy what you hear, please do give us a rating and review, that way even more people will hear them and that, in the end, is what it’s all about.


00:01:43.21 Andy Coulson:

Crisis What Crisis? Is generously supported by Myndstream, a brilliant company who harness the power of music for personal wellbeing. Whether it be music for meditation, to help focus, sleep, stress relief, yoga and fitness, rejuvenation, even grief and loss, Myndstream is there to improve human performance. I’ve tried it, it works, and I’d recommend having a listen to the Myndstream catalogue yourself. Just search Myndstream, that’s mind with a Y, on Spotify. Thanks again for joining me.


00:02:16.15 Andy Coulson:

This podcast, like most other things these days, was recorded remotely. The sound quality, at time I’m afraid, is not the greatest but thanks in advance for sticking with it, I hope you’ll agree at the end that it was worth it. It was also recorded before the latest tearful restrictions were announced.


00:02:34.10 Andy Coulson:

I’m joined today by the living legend that is Wilko Johnson for a conversation that I think will provide a truly unique perspective on crisis. Acclaimed as one of rock’s most charismatic and influential performers, Wilko shot to fame as a member of Dr Feelgood. It’s fair to say that without him we might not have had Paul Weller or Joe Strummer for that matter, to say Wilko himself fully embraced life as a rockstar through the decades that followed would be an understatement.


00:03:05.07 Andy Coulson:

In 2009, the Julian Temple documentary, Oil City Confidential told the story of Canvey Island’s most famous sons, Dr Feelgood and Temple said of Wilko ‘he is an extraordinary man, one of the great English eccentrics’. After he left Dr Feelgood, Wilko said fired they said of his own accord, he never stopped performing. In his own bands and with others, including The Blockheads, he also appeared as the executioner in two series of Game of Thrones, his trademark thousand yard stare landing him the role.


00:03:40.06 Andy Coulson:

But then, in January 2013, Wilko was diagnosed with late stage pancreatic cancer and was told by doctors that his astonishing life would end within the year. Wilko refused chemotherapy and prepared to die but only after performing a series of farewell concerts and completing a final, what turned out to be hit, album with Roger Daltry. The diagnosis, he said, made him feel vividly alive. But towards the end of the year and after an extraordinary intervention from a fan who also happened to be a cancer specialist, Wilko was urged to seek a second opinion. As a result they discovered that the 3kg tumour that he’d been told would kill him was in fact treatable. He underwent radical eleven hour surgery to have it removed along with his pancreas, spleen and intestines. The following year Wilko was presented with the Q Magazine Icon Award and on stage announced that he was now cancer free. That he was back, in fact, from the dead.


00:04:50.05 Andy Coulson:

Wilko Johnson, thank you for joining us on Crisis What Crisis?


00:04:54.18 Wilko Johnson:



00:04:57.14 Andy Coulson:

It’s great to have you here. We’re talking, Wilko, as the government has just put your hometown and my old haunt Southend, into tier three. How have you been reacting to this kind of restricted life that we’ve been living?


00:05:14.01 Wilko Johnson:

Because of my age for one thing, I’m seventy-three now, and because of my what happened to me with the cancer and everything, I was one of these especially vulnerable people. And I was told that I had to go into what they called shielding.


00:05:37.22 Andy Coulson:



00:05:39.02 Wilko Johnson:

Then that I had to be here alone in my place and I wasn’t even allowed to step out of the door.


00:05:50.23 Andy Coulson:

How did you react to that, Wilko? I mean, I’m guessing that that is not a natural state for you.


00:05:58.00 Wilko Johnson:

I mean, at that point I didn’t realise how extended this crisis would be. You know, and well it didn’t freak me out at first realising that the UK tour we had coming up was obviously going to have to be candled or postponed. But the idea of lounging about at home, I’ve had plenty of practice at that, you know, if you’re a musician you get these. You do a tour and then you’ll be home for two or three weeks. So you’re quite used to just doing what you like so it was nothing.


00:06:44.21 Wilko Johnson:

So I sat down in this room and I mean, first of all it was like a fifties science fiction film, first of all wasn’t it? It was real kind of Quatermass, you know Andy. There’s this invisible threat that’s going to kill the whole world and you mustn’t step outside your door or it will get you. And that was all very weird. And then once the weirdness had worn off you just get into this eternal day, that every day’s the same. And yes, its…


00:07:28.15 Andy Coulson:

Well I’m interested, a little bit later, to ask you how, given what you’ve been through, how you approach what is a crisis that everyone’s facing but let’s get to that. Wilko, we’re here to talk about crisis. As I mentioned it’s a subject that you have, I think it’s fair to say, a truly unique perspective on. But can we perhaps start with the less acute crises in your life? Your brilliant autobiography is the story or an eventful but also pretty chaotic life, as you describe it. As I mentioned in the intro you became famous as a guitarist in Dr Feelgood, one of the bands that sort of built the bridge, if you like, for punk, but you left suddenly in April 1977. Was that your first crisis, did it feel like that at the time?


00:08:26.11 Wilko Johnson:

Yeah, I mean, well when… let’s make it clear, yes it was a crisis because, no, I didn’t leave, they chucked me out of the band. We were making our fourth album. Our previous album had been a big number one hit and we’d started to make inroads into America and this album we were making was [unclear] and I was the songwriter then. And during the, well, they were recording this album. I’d been beating my brains out writing songs for this album and we’d go down to Rockfield studios and were making this album. There was a big argument which I think they had really manufactured. There was…


00:09:31.17 Andy Coulson:

They wanted you out?


00:09:33.04 Wilko Johnson:

Yeah. And I mean, well I’m going to say it now, sod it, it was the absolutely ignoble. They waited until we had recorded the songs I’d written, until we’d got the tracks recorded and then manufactured this argument and it went on all night. And by the morning I was out of the band, they’d chucked me out the band. When you’re in a band and it really becomes your family, it becomes your world. And suddenly to be ejected from that is… and I had no one with me. I mean, not to do with the business. I did almost everything wrong, you know, I thought what am I going to do? I will just start another, I’ll get another band together and get back on the road and…


00:10:38.11 Andy Coulson:

What should you have done?


00:10:40.00 Wilko Johnson:

I was lost and confused and all I wanted, what I wanted to do was the first people to come up to me, I started up a band. And I shouldn’t have done that and I shouldn’t have done that. I was completely cut off from anyone in the biz really. I feel like the only, there were about two people who used to phone me up. Lemmy used to call me up, I mean, you know, Lemmy’s not going to give you fatherly advice or… yeah, I was lost and I didn’t do the right thing.


00:11:26.02 Andy Coulson:

You were married to Irene, your childhood sweetheart who you met as a teenager on Canvey Island. You were married for forty years. She very sadly died in 2004 from cancer, clearly a heart breaking crisis for you and for your sons, Matthew and Simon. And one that you’ve said that you never really recovered from.


00:11:53.22 Wilko Johnson:

I don’t know, what can I say about Irene? She was… yeah, you know we were teenagers and we got married and we were together all that time. And she was one of the… yeah… she was an exceptional person and her presence and that has definitely saved me. I mean, obviously in times like that, the band breaking up, she was just looking after me. It’s been fifteen years now, I think, since she died and I don’t think, in fact I know I haven’t spent a waking hour without thinking about her, you know, I think about her all the time.


00:12:47.13 Wilko Johnson:

You know, people say a bereavement is like losing a limb, it’s true. You know, it’s like I’ve lost an arm or something and because if you were to lose an arm you know, from then on you would obviously be constantly aware that there was something missing. And then you can get used to it and you can live with it and your life can carry on but you’re always aware that it’s gone. And so you can’t just forget about it. This metaphor is even more appropriate because she was like a right arm to me. She looked after me, man, she was the practical one you know, and she protected me and looked, just looked after everything.


00:13:52.00 Andy Coulson:

Wilko, your career took a surprising but brilliant turn when you landed a role in Game of Thrones. How on earth did that come about?


00:14:03.11 Wilko Johnson:

I got this thing, would I go to this audition? And they I didn’t know about Game of Thrones, I didn’t know about the book or anything. Anyway they said to me to ‘go to this audition and it’s for a part…’, what did they say…? It’s for an American television series. I thought oh it must be something like Xena The Warrior Princess or something.


00:14:43.03 Andy Coulson:

A strange one to have thought of Wilko! If you don’t mind me saying so.


00:14:45.20 Wilko Johnson:

No, I thought maybe I’ll get a leather jacket out of it. And the first shoot that I did was over in Ireland and I got to Ireland. When I first got to where it was happening and I realised this ‘aint Xena The Warrior Princess. It was like massive, it was people up ladders… you know it was like, obviously a big movie. And I was like, wow, I tell you what, it was fantastic, it was so much fun. It was like, because so I’ve got all this gear on, right. Chainmail, the sword at me back and stuff like that. And the first scene we did, the first scene we’re on was a scene in…


00:15:48.22 Wilko Johnson:

There’s a scene where we’re in some torchlit room and there’s all these warriors and that and there’s the king and the king is having some altercation with Sean Bean. And there’s some point where Sean Bean turns round and makes some offensive comment about me. And of course I just give him a dirty look because I can’t speak because I ‘aint got a tongue. And anyway doing this scene, it was great. It was like, because you’re in this kind of torchlit room with everyone dressed up in armour with swords and stuff like that and you can’t see the cameras, right? And man, it was just like being a kid like playing, only you’ve got real swords. Oh wow, it was just so much fun, it was great.


00:16:47.01 Andy Coulson:

Wilko, it wasn’t long after your last appearance in fact, on Game of Thrones, because I think you were in two series. It wasn’t long after that that life took a very different tone and you were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.


00:17:06.13 Wilko Johnson:



00:17:07.17 Andy Coulson:

Just tell me about that day when you were sat in front of your doctor. It’s the conversation that everybody thinks about and everybody dreads.


00:17:18.02 Wilko Johnson:

Well I found this little lump on my stomach, right. And it was just, I dunno, small. But it was a lump. I was in the bath and was like what’s that? And I didn’t, despite Irene’s death and some other people I’d known that had died of cancer, it just didn’t cross my mind. I don’t know, maybe I didn’t want to think like that, I don’t know. At around Christmas time I think it was, my number one son, Matthew, came over with his family from Dubai where he lives for Christmas. And I showed it to him and he kind of grabbed me and was like right you’re coming up to hospital. And he just kind of put me in the car and we went to the hospital.


00:18:34.00 Wilko Johnson:

We went into the hospital and I went into this room and I was with Matthew and another friend of mine. And in the room was a doctor, and a lady, a nurse I think, standing there and then he said, ‘You have this mass…’ did he say on your pancreas, I don’t know. And I thought ‘Oh’. And he said, ‘Unfortunately we can’t operate on this’ and I thought ‘Uhh’ and then he said it, ‘You’ve got cancer’. And it was funny but Matthew burst into tears. So he’d lost his mum and Matthew started crying. And I’m going, ‘Oh son, it’s alright’


00:19:52.20 Wilko Johnson:

And anyway he’d said this to me and I suppose everybody must imagine to themselves how would I react? And how I reacted was that he said it and I felt absolutely calm. I mean, steady as a rock. And I just thought, oh, so this is how it ends. I didn’t freak, I felt completely calm. I thought right well that’s it. And then I remember walking, I walked out the hospital and I live quite near the hospital so I was going to walk home. I remember it was a very lovely winter’s day and I remember looking up at the bare trees against this china blue sky and thinking how beautiful it looks, it’s just so beautiful. And I just I started feeling this ecstasy really, it just looked beautiful. And I remember thinking right that’s it, the story’s over, this is how it ends. And it’s a beautiful day. And I remember walking home and as I walked home this feeling grew more and more on me. I felt, yes, I think ecstatic is the right word.


00:21:45.22 Wilko Johnson:

I was thinking wow, you know, is this delayed shock or something? Maybe when I get home I’m just going to collapse in a heap but I didn’t. And this feeling carried on and I started calling friends and telling them. They’d told me at the hospital that they’d said that they couldn’t operate on it. They’d said that they could give me chemotherapy which might slow it down but it won’t stop it. And so I thought it’s a no-brainer, do I want chemotherapy? No, everybody knows chemotherapy is a horror in itself and so I thought no, I’m not going to do that. So if I am going to die, from what they said I’d just got a few months to live.


00:23:02.15 Andy Coulson:

Can I stop you just for a second?


00:23:03.23 Wilko Johnson:

It wasn’t painful.


00:23:06.13 Andy Coulson:

Let me stop you just for a second Wilko, because you say there that it was a no-brainer. And I’m not sure, if you don’t mind me saying so, that that’s the case. And this is what’s remarkable about your reaction, is I think a lot of people, I suspect a lot of people listening to this podcast, would have seen that chemotherapy as a kind of life raft, right? Something to cling to and something that might provide some hope, obviously with all the dangers and terrors that you instantly felt. But you just you were so clear, it’s not something that you went home and thought about. You were instantly clear, no thanks.


00:23:50.10 Wilko Johnson:

No, no I mean…


00:23:51.09 Andy Coulson:

I’ll take what time I’ve got.


00:23:52.13 Wilko Johnson:

No, as I said, my immediate reaction when he said the words in the first consultation, he said, and they’d said to me that there was nothing they could do, I was going to die, they said, eight months, ten months. And so and they said chemotherapy can, we can slow it down but it can’t stop it, we can’t cure it.


00:24:27.07 Andy Coulson:

Did they give you a sense of how long chemo might give you over and above those ten months?


00:24:31.23 Wilko Johnson:

Well, they said it they could, I mean you’re crazy, you know I can have eight months… and then one or two people, including the Lee Brilleaux from Dr Feelgood,  had cancer. And I remembered my brother went to visit him at that time, I didn’t actually, but Lee had told my brother that he’d been through one course of the chemotherapy and he said it was so horrible and made him so ill that he said, ‘I tell you what if that doesn’t do the trick and they want me to do another course I’m not going to.’ And so…


00:25:30.17 Andy Coulson:

So Lee’s experience, Lee, the lead singer of Dr Feelgood, his experience was in your mind?


00:25:41.07 Wilko Johnson:

Yeah, well I mean, I knew, I remember from that, when my brother told me that he’d said that, that he would rather die than go through another course of chemotherapy, it was horrible. And they’d said that all they could do was extend my life. And I thought well what’s the point of adding months of horrible sickness to your life? You know, just let it go. And I’d listened to the people at the hospital and I think that they were very sympathetic to that attitude.


00:26:18.14 Andy Coulson:



00:26:19.07 Wilko Johnson:

I said it to the doctor and he said, ‘Well we can just concern ourselves with palliative measures.’ But no, straightway I thought, no, no don’t struggle this is going to kill you, just go. And then this, as I say, this kind of ecstasy that I’d experienced after being told, as I say it was like when they’d said it to me and one of the things I thought was oh, this is how it ends, you know. We will, none of us know where we’re going but I know. And that was, that just continued for me.


00:27:13.09 Andy Coulson:

Very quickly, Wilko, you started to plan what would be the last months of your life. Were these decisions made alone? Because it seems like you were not a man either seeking or needing advice. You had absolute clarity about what you wanted to do with that time and what you wanted that time to allow you to do and say. To your family, to your fan base, for you, as well, of course.


00:27:47.23 Wilko Johnson:

Well, as I said, I’d you know when they told me about chemotherapy and I thought, no I don’t want that, I’m going to die so I’ll just let it happen and I’ll know that this is it. This is something that we all face in the end and I mean, as I say, I had this lump on my stomach and that but I wasn’t in pain. And the whole thing, the world did look so beautiful to me after this. It was like… and thinking just that was my influence as well. You know it’s like this is the end of the story. After all that. That was quite a kind of comfort to me in many ways.


00:28:54.03 Andy Coulson:

You said that for those months that followed that diagnosis, that you had the most incredibly intense insights, is the phrase that you’ve used. Explain that for me a little bit more. What change did it cause in you?


00:29:17.19 Wilko Johnson:

For instance, you know, I’d be walking in a crowded street and you know this thing 00:30:04.01that you’re going to die. Everybody knows that they’re gonna die but most of us don’t know we’re gonna die soon. You’re walking in a crowded street and somehow it felt kind of busy for all these people you’re seeing. You’re saying oh look at all these people, they’re all in the grip of mortality, they’re mortal beings and they don’t think about it much but they know it. But for me the question, that question’s answered. And somehow I’ve got because sometimes I look at how busy everyone was. Because there they are living with the fear of death which I didn’t have to do because it was solved for me.


00:30:19.10 Andy Coulson:

So there was a freedom?


00:30:21.11 Wilko Johnson:



00:30:22.14 Andy Coulson:

For you?


00:30:22.24 Wilko Johnson:

Yeah. And I had just this whole thing and it led to a fantastic year. I mean, one thing I didn’t want to do was I didn’t want to go on stage sick. I didn’t want people to see me like that. And I just thought well I’ve got, I don’t know what, they told me I had eight, ten months to live, how long’s it going to be before I start looking you know, I don’t know. And by that time the summer was coming along and I thought, oh that’s great I can get gigs and it won’t matter if I fall sick before the gigs because it’s at a festival. So like…


00:31:20.17 Andy Coulson:

Yeah, it won’t impact.


00:31:22.18 Wilko Johnson:

If I drop out that’s not gonna, the festival will go on. We booked a farewell tour. So all the time I’m thinking how long have I got while I’m capable of doing what I do? And I think it sold out in five minutes or something. I just never… things had never gone like that for me. And then yeah so we did the tour and I was still on my feet, I was still okay. This lump was getting bigger and bigger and by then I kind of looked pregnant. And one of the festivals we did was Cornbury.


00:32:06.00 Wilko Johnson:

By then it was very well known about all of this, I’d been on the front page of everybody’s newspaper, I’d been on the morning television, everything. And playing at the top of the bill at Cornbury there was Van Morrison which was very good because I know Van and I could see Van and say goodbye to him. And funnily enough it was at that festival there was this little Chinese chap, a photographer running round taking pictures. And his name was Charlie Chan. And talking to Charlie Chan I discovered that he was in fact a cancer surgeon and anyway that went by. And the year went by and we were coming to the end of the year and Charlie Chan turned up at my place.


00:33:29.13 Andy Coulson:

Turned up at your home?


00:33:31.11 Wilko Johnson:

Yeah. And he come in and he said, ‘Listen, if you were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January or whenever it was by now you should be dead or very sick.’ Apart from a huge baby bump on my stomach…


00:33:58.15 Andy Coulson:

So this thing was huge, you were resting your guitar on it when you were playing right?


00:34:02.18 Wilko Johnson:

Yeah, I mean, if you take your hands off your guitar normally it lies flat, right, and it would actually point forward, you know.


00:34:14.09 Andy Coulson:

Goodness, but other than that you were feeling…


00:34:19.00 Wilko Johnson:

Yeah, well I think I would kind of get… sometimes there would be kind of blood and stuff but not pain. I just sort of it was huge, this great big lump.


00:34:39.05 Andy Coulson:

So Charlie turns up at your door and he says that you should be dead or at least you should be very sick. And he suggests you do what?


00:34:50.16 Wilko Johnson:

He said ‘I want you to go and see my friend Emmanuel Huguet, who in fact is the chief transplant surgeon at Addenbrookes Hospital.  He said I want you to go and see him. And I think actually Charlie had already told Emmanuel about me and I think maybe they’d already obtained the scans that I’d originally had at Southend at the beginning of it all. And anyway Charlie said something’s changed and I want you to go and see Mr Huguet, Emmanuel Huguet and see what he’s got to say.


00:35:46.09 Andy Coulson:

Given your absolute clarity about not wanting chemotherapy to total acceptance of what is happening to you, did you resist?


00:35:56.13 Wilko Johnson:

No, because I had decided that I didn’t want to go for second opinions or anything like that. I was like they’d told me I was going to die. I’d had a biopsy done which had been sent up to the London hospital and that had come back and so I thought, look two hospitals have seen this and they’ve told me I’m going to die, so I don’t want to spend any more time in hospitals. I remember when Irene was dying sitting in hospital corridors and you know I think I don’t wanna… I wanna have a good time with what I’ve got left.


00:36:37.20 Wilko Johnson:

And but I thought but what I’ve got here is actually a cancer doctor telling me something and saying I want you to go and meet this guy. So I thought, yes, okay. So I did and I met Mr Huguet and this guy… wow! What a guy! And he was talking about that it was operable. I remember he was saying we’re 99% sure that we can operate on that. and I remember sitting there, I didn’t understand, I’d been living with this for months. And I’m sitting there looking at him thinking is this guy telling me he can save my life? When we walked out from that first consultation I was actually laughing because I was thinking if you wrote this into a soap opera…


00:37:56.01 Andy Coulson:

People would be turning off in disbelief.


00:37:57.20 Wilko Johnson:

Thinking it was you know.. I can’t believe it and…


00:38:04.10 Andy Coulson:

But Wilko, it wasn’t straightforward was it? I mean, he wasn’t saying to you ‘Here’s a treatment, you’re going to be on a course of drugs’ or ‘we’re gonna find a swift and easy solution to this now that we’ve got the proper diagnosis’. What he was saying to you was that you needed to undergo a very complex, in some ways, never been done before, eleven hour operation that by the way you may not survive. They felt that it was very clearly worth doing.


00:38:33.17 Wilko Johnson:

Yes, he was very, Mr Huguet is very clear and very precise about it. Within minutes of starting to talk to him I absolutely trusted him.


00:38:47.18 Andy Coulson:

You felt fully at ease. How quickly did you have the operation?


00:38:52.20 Wilko Johnson:

It was I think he said, I think we went in for another consultation after that quite quickly and because he told me later, he said, he didn’t want to try and persuade me in any way, right. Which I noticed he just said everything he knew, thought about it. And his team, and their options and he didn’t and then I said, ‘Oh well, go ahead.’ And then just after he said to me, he said ‘I’m very glad you said that because if it was my father or myself or a member of my family I know that’s what I want but I didn’t want to persuade you.’ Ethically he didn’t.


00:39:57.06 Andy Coulson:

Yes of course.


00:39:58.18 Wilko Johnson:

So he was pleased and then I remember him saying ‘of course this is going to be a major operation’. He was telling me how they were gonna. you know they’d been planning it; he was saying he was gonna have a team of transplant surgeons standing by because he said there was looking at a picture of someone about, there might have been a major blood vessel underneath this tumour that might be damaged. And that they would need to do a transplant, they would have to take a vein out of my neck and put it in there. And so there were a team of transplant guys ready to do that. It was…


00:40:52.19 Andy Coulson:

I’m just obviously, you know, it’s such a unique situation, I’m just fascinated to try and understand how you then, from a psychological point of view, right, from your mindset, how do you readjust? How do you turn yourself back in a different direction, if you like, in that way?


00:41:16.11 Wilko Johnson:

Well I don’t know. Because in a way as I say, from the beginning I just decided to accept this, I just wanted to make the most of my time. And as I say, when being confronted with these people saying well we can do this, it was just I would never have dreamed…


00:41:48.06 Andy Coulson:

No, it must have just been utterly unreal.


00:41:49.22 Wilko Johnson:

At the very beginning I decided to just put it out of my mind, just don’t even fantasies about a miracle cure or something like that.


00:42:00.23 Andy Coulson:

Did part of you also, Wilko, think you know what, through extraordinary and almost kind of unbelievable chain of events, set of circumstances, you talk almost with a sense of gratitude about that time that you had before the second diagnosis, when you had this clarity and this kind of view of the world, that freedom that you described. Is gratitude the word actually that applies here?


00:42:31.13 Wilko Johnson:

I mean, I don’t know, there were times… Like many times of just sitting here in this room, you know, and with it and on me own and thinking, you start thinking about some pretty profound things, I mean genuinely. And of course it’s all like a fading dream to me now, you know. You start thinking about it, you know, about existence and thinking truly, truly profound things that really resonate. And things that you’d never felt before. And I remember sometimes thinking the things I’m sitting there meditating on, I could never have done this in the normal way of things.


00:43:45.07 Wilko Johnson:

Wow, you know what, I tell you what, it’s almost worth it. One thing about it, once I got the offer of the operation and everything, I’m thinking wow, this has worked out good for me because either I’m going to be cured, I’m going to be miraculously released or I will die on the operating table so I escape all that suffering. So you know, it was a pretty good deal.


00:44:26.01 Andy Coulson:



00:44:29.07 Wilko Johnson:

I mean, I am an atheist, I didn’t have any problems wondering about what happens next or something, so there were not feelings like that to contend with but I thought yeah, that’s it and I will escape suffering.


00:44:48.18 Andy Coulson:

You’re an atheist but you’re also the most astonishing optimist because you, at a number of junctures here in this story, as I touched on earlier, there were options for you to feel and think differently, as I think an awful lot of people would have done. I want to ask, I want to finish by asking you for your three crisis cures, as we do with every guest. These are three things that you kind of rely on, lean on in the tough times. It can’t be another person is the only rule. What comes to mind?


00:45:24.15 Wilko Johnson:

Well as I say, in the crises that I described for instance when Irene died, actually I haven’t got any good advice. I know it was like when my crisis was the Feelgood busting up, you know I had my own favourite medicines that I would take anyway then and I would just start doing a lot of that. And sometimes resort to alcohol which I think is a bad one. Alcohol just it can turn depression into despair and although it’s hard sometimes, and sometimes when something is just hard and you can’t do anything about it and you’re helpless, you know you can get lushed out you know, but you’re not going to feel very good the next morning.


00:46:38.10 Andy Coulson:

So that’s what you avoid. What do you embrace, I’m assuming that music, of course, is incredibly important to you? Is there a particular piece of music?


00:46:49.16 Wilko Johnson:

Literature is such a very important to me it’s a huge thing. There are so many great works of literature that you can… in fact I’ve just been to a couple of days without sleep, I’ve been reading Moby Dick, what a book.


00:47:12.05 Andy Coulson:

Amazing, yeah.


00:47:13.09 Wilko Johnson:

Oh, what a book. And I dunno, but that’s for me.


00:47:18.04 Andy Coulson:

No that’s exactly what I’m asking, the stuff that’s for you. I mean, you mentioned, if we talk about music, you mentioned Van Morrison earlier.


00:47:26.20 Wilko Johnson:



00:47:28.17 Andy Coulson:

Does he make the list?


00:47:32.04 Wilko Johnson:

Absolutely. In fact I would say that that album, Saint Dominic’s Preview, it think it came out in 1972 and I know that this was at a time when I dunno, a few ups and downs and I know that that album can… it’s such a great album and it finishes with this a fantastic number called Almost Independence Day. A long one where Van’s really doing his.. and I remember that when that came out and when I had bad times I can put that record on and it finishes with this long, droning synthesiser note, right. And it’s Almost Independence Day and it’s a song about looking out over the Russian River, San Francisco and this final note is kind of ah… you think ah, it’s gonna be alright. It’s yes, I recommend that.


00:48:57.02 Andy Coulson:

Thanks so much Wilko for joining us today. You’ve been so generous with your time and in the way that you’ve talked about your life, about your crises. For my part, I won’t forget your description of those days after your diagnosis when you were unburdened of the baggage we all carry with us. You know that question, when will our time be up? That was incredibly powerful, Wilko, and valuable. So thanks again, and I hope sincerely that you’re back and performing soon sir.


00:49:35.20 Wilko Johnson:



00:49:36.04 Andy Coulson:

Cheers, all the best.


00:49:37.23 Andy Coulson:

Thanks for listening to Crisis What Crisis? Do feel free to send us your feedback, you’ll find our contact details and our show notes giving you the key insights from our guests at crisiswhatcrisis.com. there are more useful conversations on the way so please do subscribe and if you like what you hear give us a rating and a review, it really helps. Thanks again.




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